Hawaii wildfires: Death toll surges to 80 as Maui officials probe warning, handling flaws

Hawaii wildfires: Death toll surges to 80 as Maui officials probe warning, handling flaws

So far, at least 80 people have lost their lives in the deadly wildfires that have been raging unabated for days on Hawaii’s Maui Island amid rising criticism over the efficiency of official response to the disastrous wildfires.

Hawaii’s chief legal officer announced on Friday that an investigation had been launched.

The announcement was made as Lahaina residents were being allowed back into the town for the first time and discovering that most of their homes had been reduced to ashes, with even the fortunate ones feeling abandoned

“Everything has been coconut wire,” said William Harry, referring to a system of rumours.

“One person heard, then told another, but it´s not official information. They don´t come here and explain anything.”

Another man, who did not want to be named, told AFP he felt like he had been left to fend for himself.

“Where is the government? Where are they?” he fumed.

“This is insane. We can´t move freely, we don´t get the support, now we´ve heard about looting.”

Hawaii´s Attorney General Anne Lopez said her office would be examining “critical decision-making and standing policies leading up to, during, and after the wildfires on Maui and Hawai´i islands this week.”

“My department is committed to understanding the decisions that were made before and during the wildfires and to sharing with the public the results of this review.”

For some of those who made it back into Lahaina, there was elation as they tearfully reconnected with neighbors they feared might not have got out alive.

“You made it!” cried Chyna Cho, as she embraced Amber Langdon amid the ruins. “I was trying to find you.”

For some of the luckiest, there was a joy — albeit tempered by the scale of the tragedy that counts among the worst natural disasters to hit the state of Hawaii.

“I just couldn´t believe it,” Keith Todd told AFP after finding his home intact.

“I´m so grateful, but at the same time it´s so devastating.”

Todd, 64, discovered his house and his neighbor´s house untouched, and his solar panels providing electricity to the fridge, which was still dispensing ice on demand.

But even those few whose homes still appeared habitable were being warned they might not be safe.

“Some structures in the Lahaina water system were destroyed by the fire… These conditions may have caused harmful contaminants, including benzene and other volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), to enter the water system,” said Maui´s water department.

“As a precaution…(we) are advising residents to not use the tap water for drinking and cooking until further notice.”

Some of those who made it back to Lahaina wandered in stunned silence trying to take in the enormity of the destruction.

Anthony La Puente said the shock of finding his home burned to nothing was profound.

“It sucks not being able to find the things you grew up with or the things you remember,” he told AFP of the house he had lived in for 16 years.

“The only thing I can say is that it hurts. It takes a toll on you emotionally,” the 44-year-old said.

Maui County Police Chief John Pelletier said Thursday that as many as 1,000 people could be unaccounted for, though he stressed that this did not mean they were missing or dead.

Communications in the western part of the island remain tricky, and Pelletier said many of those whose whereabouts were not known could simply be out of reach.

The fires follow other extreme weather events in North America this summer, with record-breaking wildfires still burning across Canada and a major heat wave baking the US southwest.

Europe and parts of Asia have also endured soaring temperatures, with major fires and floods wreaking havoc.